Friday, January 27, 2017

Best Contemporary YA Fiction of 2016

I usually post my best young adult fiction list in December, but this year I was moving between sabbaticals in Japan and in the UK with a brief stop at home in Maine for the holidays. I'm finally settled in Oxford with time to catch up on book reviews. Since I write contemporary YA fiction, that's primarily what I read. Although these books were all published in 2016, their themes are all the more relevant for 2017. Reading fiction is also a good escape from the dystopian real world of American politics right now.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon was my favorite young adult novel of 2016. This emotionally resonant story of immigration, assimilation, and deportation is sadly all the more realistic today. We need books that foster empathy and compassion. The immigrant author won a Printz Honor for this perfect book.

Yoon's page-turner story hooked me immediately: On the day Natasha and her Jamaican family are due to be deported, she meets Daniel, a Korean American on his way to a Yale College interview in New York City. Daniel believes in poetry and soulmates but scientific Natasha is skeptical. Her focus is on fighting to stay in the USA. Natasha has no time for love, but what if Daniel is right?

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone was my favorite debut. The premise was original and poignant: a dying grandmother takes her family on a luxurious world cruise to say goodbye. Gallow humor, a comically dysfunctional family, and a sweet romance offset the sad realism of terminal cancer. Somehow this novel about dying with dignity was one of the most life-affirming books I've ever read.

The story now resonates with me personally as my mother-in-law fights cancer with the hope of traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway with my son this summer. My teenage daughter is finding comfort in this book too. I'll post a more in depth analysis next week for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo had the best setting: Antarctica. I loved how this novel focused on failure and resilience, a theme lacking in most YA literature. American culture unrealistically claims that anyone can succeed if she/he tries hard enough. In a clever juxtaposition, the world of professional ballet is shown to be as challenging and crazy as reaching the South Pole. After failing her ballet auditions, Harper Scott follows her ancestor's snow tracks to Antarctica. Her heroes haunt her long winter hallucinations as she struggles to find a new path in life. This book is eloquent on science, climate change, and ballet. The only weakness was the ease of romance, but that element provided some light in the darkness. Also there were penguins!

Wrecked by Maria Padian was my favorite issue-driven novel. This chillingly realistic story investigates an alleged date rape on a college campus from three perspectives: the roommate of the victim, the housemate of the accused, and an omniscient narration on the night of the attack. The reader must piece together the clues and draw his/her own conclusion about what really happened. The conflicting versions of the truth becomes the central theme of this engaging book. The setting is rural New England. I'd love to see more YA set at college and with feminist themes. Note the pussy hat pink cover!
Link to my full review of Wrecked.

Although the cover of The Season of You & Me by Robin Constantine looks like a traditional romance novel, what is missing from the photo is a wheelchair. A former surfer, Bryan now cruises his island home in an adapted car. Working at a summer day camp, Bryan befriends mainland Cassie, who is recovering from a painful breakup and adjusting to her dad's new family. Romance builds slowly on this small island off the Jersey shore. The story explores prejudice toward disability and the challenges of sex as a paraplegic, but the central plot is romance. A character does not need to overcome disability to be sexually attractive. It's wonderful to see more inclusive YA romance.
On my Good Summer Books List too.

This is a Story of You by Beth Kephart is a modern parable of the horrors of climate change. When a storm cuts off an island from the Jersey Shore, 17-year-old Mira must fight for survival with only a stray cat for company. Earlier that day, her single mom had driven her disabled brother to the mainland hospital for emergency treatment. As the storm rages and the sea floods their beachside cottage, Mira must decide what to save and how to stay alive. If that weren't scary enough, a mysterious intruder is lurking outside, and without power or cellular service, Mira can't call for help. I fear we'll see more real world examples of this fictional disaster all too soon if the US reverses climate change policy. Read the rest of my review here.

Given the spike in hate crimes in the USA, we need books that show diverse characters as normal teens, not as victims. You Know Me Well is set under the rainbow of San Francisco. Authors David Levithan and Nina LaCour narrate this heartwarming friendship story in alternating chapters: Mark is a hot jock with a secret crush on his closeted best friend, and Kate is a talented artist who is scared of finally meeting the girl of her dreams. The struggles they face are universal: academic expectations, parental pressure, and shifting relationships. Many teens will relate to the feeling of knowing what you want but lacking the self confidence to claim it. A buddy who supports and encourages you makes all the difference. Review continued here.

With Malice by Eileen Cook kept me up way past my bedtime. This Amanda Knox inspired suspense-thriller had intriguing suspects, multiple red herrings, and more twists than the village roads of Tuscany. The unreliable narrator's testimony leaves the reader tossing and turning in bed, ruminating over conflicting versions of the truth. This cynical satire lampoons journalists, social media, lawyers, detectives, and the scandal-hungry public. With Malice is a fitting read for the age of "alternative facts."
My full length review with photos of Italy.

Happy Reading!

Reviewer's Disclosure: Maria Padian is a friend and Beth Kephart is a blog buddy. On my request, publishers sent me ARCs of Wrecked, This Is The Story of You, and With Malice. I purchased all other books myself without compensation. Authors Carrie Firestone and Nina LaCour are represented by my agent.


Beth Kephart said...

Sarah, I am grateful to be here, in such good company. Thank you.

A Cuban In London said...

Magnificent reviews. Great to have you in good ol' Blighty! :-)

Greetings from London.

thecuecard said...

Nice post Sarah! I'm so glad you picked the Yoon novel as I have a copy of it on my shelves waiting to be read. So I really look forward to it. Also the Antarctica setting of the Longo novel really interests me. Any book set there is a sure way to get me to read it. thanks for your list!

troutbirder said...

Great list. Your "perfect" book especially caught my eye. With two grand children (out of five) from Africa (Ethiopia & Rwanda) empathy and compassion works for me.

Sarah Laurence said...

Beth, my pleasure! I love your writing.

ACiL, thanks, it is great to be back! Your posts often make me miss my other home.

Cue, I’m looking forward to your reaction to both books since I love your reviews!

Troutbirder, Sun might appeal to their parents and to the kids when they are older, although adoption is a different type of immigration. These troubled times must be especially hard on your family.